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5 Best National Parks in the USA for Your Bucket List

Best National Parks in the USA

National Parks refer to areas set aside by the Government for the preservation of the environment. There are 63 National Parks that span across the US and the terrains and environment vastly differ from one park to another. Being able to explore all 63 parks is a huge feat as they span over thirty states and two US territories–not to mention the list of parks is continually growing. However, visiting the best National Parks in the USA could be an easier option.

In 2020, there were 237 million visits made to the National Parks, surprisingly enough that’s a 27% decrease from the year prior (thanks COVID). Chances are you’ve visited at least one National Park, and if you haven’t it’s never too late to start visiting some of the best National Parks in the USA.

I always joke that the best purchase I ever made was my “America the Beautiful” pass, which is the $80 pass that gets you into all the National Parks for a one-year period. If you’re interested in purchasing, you can do it anytime with ease. If you don’t wish to purchase the pass, you will have to pay a $30 entrance fee to get into every park.

National Parks offer something for everyone, even if you don’t consider yourself the outdoorsy type. I can confidently say that some of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen have been in the best national parks in the USA, and you don’t have to be the adventurous type or in great shape to take advantage of it. For more National Park itineraries, check out my blog, too. Here are the 5 best National Parks to visit in the USA:

1. Glacier National Park

Best National Parks in the USA

Quick Facts

Location: Montana’s Rocky Mountains
Closest Airport: Glacier Park International Airport located in Kalispell
Size: 1,012,837 acres
Annual Visitors: 2.5 million
Best Time to visit: July/August
Length of Time to Explore: Highlights can be seen in 2-3 days

I’ll just come out and say it, Glacier is the best park I’ve ever been to. The landscape of this park is varied and unparalleled. Located in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, there are lush forests, meadow fields, miles of mountain peaks, and some of the most beautiful lakes I’ve seen. The first bear I ever spotted was at this park, so there’s a good chance to spot wildlife here. This park is often described as a hikers paradise because of the 700 miles worth of hiking trails; however, a lot of the views can be explored just from the car.

The infamous “Going-to-the-Sun-Road” is a 50 mile paved scenic mountain road that takes you through the park. This is my #1 recommendation when visiting, it is probably one of the more iconic roads in the country. Due to snow conditions, parts of this road typically closes mid to late October and remain closed until June or July. Please note, due to Covid, we were only able to see the West side of Glacier so these recommendations do not take into consideration the East side of the park.

Hikes I Recommend

This park is filled with incredible hikes, we stuck to relatively shorter ones so we had time to see other things, but I already have a list of hikes I want to do next time we arrive. If you plan to hike in Glacier, bring bear spray! It is not uncommon to spot a bear on the trails, and every person we passed had a bear spray canister with them. I’ve got a link to the kind I have here. Speaking of bears, Rangers often close trails due to bear activity, so I recommend having a list of backup hikes just in case.

Avalanche Lake

5.6 miles, easy/moderate

Avalanche Lake

This ended up being my favorite hike of the entire trip and it’s probably one of the most popular hikes in the park! Parking can be tough here because of its popularity, so try to arrive early morning or do it later in the day before sunset. The lake is a beautiful green color and you can see water falling from the mountains that surround the lake.

St Mary & Virginia Falls

2.9 miles, easy

Best National Parks in the USA

If you need a family-friendly hike this is a great option! It features two waterfalls and a bridge that’s a popular cliff jumping spot. The first waterfall is bright blue and pretty early on in the hike, so if you want an even shorter hike you can hike 3/4 of a mile to the first fall.

Hidden Lake

5.2 miles, moderate

Hidden Lake

Unfortunately, the day that we did this hike we were only able to hike to the viewpoint of the lake and not down to the actual lake due to bear activity. Even though we ended up only doing about 2 miles of the hike, it was totally worth it! You hike on a boardwalk surrounded by Glacier Mountains. These were some of my favorite trail views of the trip!

Additional Hikes Worth Checking Out

  1. Grinnell Glacier Trail–11.2 miles, hard
  2. Highline Trail–14.9 miles, hard
  3. Iceberg Lake Trail–9.3 miles, moderate

Other Things I recommend in Glacier

Cliff Jumping/Laying out

Best National Parks in the USA

Glacier has so many opportunities to pull off the main road and hang out by crystal clear streams! The water is FREEZING (what did you expect? the Park is called “Glacier” for a reason) but it can be refreshing on a long day, especially after hiking!

St Mary’s Lake

Best National Parks in the USA

While driving the “Going-to-the-Sun Road” there is St Mary’s Lake Overlook that is worth the stop. We were able to find a trail through the brushes that led down to the lake and it was stunning!

Lake McDonald

Lake Mcdonald

This is one of the more iconic stops in Glacier! It’s the reason so many people come to this one of the best National Parks in the USA. In fact, you’ve probably seen photos of this lake with rainbow-colored rocks. I recommend checking this place out at sunset or sunrise if you have time, it’ll be a little less crowded.

2. Yosemite National Park

Best National Parks in the USA

Quick Facts

Location: California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains
Closest Airport: Fresno Yosemite International Airport
Size: 747,946 acres
Annual Visitors: 4 million
Best Time to visit: Spring/Fall
Length of Time to Explore:Highlights can be seen in 2-3 days

It is no surprise that California’s Yosemite Park makes my top 5 list, it’d be more surprising if this park didn’t make someone’s top 5. Yosemite National Park is known for the tall sequoia trees, waterfalls, and the vastness of El Capitan and Half Dome. Due to California’s more wild temperatures, you can visit and enjoy Yosemite for much of the year. It does have seasonal park closures in the winter months due to snow; however, photos of Yosemite with a dusting of snow is still incredible. If your primary focus is hiking, later spring through the fall is a great time to visit. We visited in late June and although the waterfalls were gushing, it gets HOT–it was about 95 degrees, so keep that in mind. Always pack enough water, food and sunscreen.

Hikes I Recommend

Vernal and Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail

8.8 miles, hard

Best National Parks in the USA

When researching hikes, this was one of the more common hikes that popped up and if you are only able to do one long hike, I recommend this one. This trail was brutal in the 95-degree weather, but worth every second. You get views of two different waterfalls. This is actually part of trail you take if you are hiking Half Dome (note, you need to attain a permit to hike Half Dome

Taft Point

2.3 miles, easy

Taft Point Yosemite

If long and steep hikes aren’t really your thing, but you still want incredible views, THIS IS THE HIKE FOR YOU! 2.3 miles round trip and you are greeted with some of the most insane views I have ever seen. A lot of the famous photos you see of Yosemite are taken from this hike. Talk about the best picnic spot. Photos of this place do not do it justice, I highly recommend checking it out! I’ve heard that it’s a great hike to do at sunset 🙂

Additional Hikes Worth Checking Out

  1. Yosemite Falls –You can either hike 1.2 miles to check out lower Yosemite falls, or you can do 7.6 miles and see Upper Yosemite Falls too. This is another highly popular hike in Yosemite
  2. Clouds Rest – 13 miles and 3,113 elevation gain, this is a hike only for experienced hikers. I hear the views are incredible as it overlooks Half Dome, but you definitely need to work for this one.

Other Things I Recommend in Yosemite

If you’re not an avid hiker, there are plenty of things to see in the park that are just a short walk away. Here are some must see spots:

Tunnel View

Best National Parks in the USA

A scenic viewpoint that displays some of the most iconic views of Yosemite Valley. If you skip any of the items on this list, this would be the one I skip because you can get similar views even closer up Glacier Point. That being said, there is a tunnel shortly after this viewpoint and as you’re leaving Yosemite you get the most incredible view as you exit the tunnel. Likely where the name “tunnel view” comes from. In the distance, you can see El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and Half Dome.

Glacier Point

Glacier Point USa

This viewpoint is INCREDIBLE. You’re greeted with amazing views after a short walk from the parking lot, but you can also walk about a quarter-mile up and reach Glacier Point. The views across the parking lot are just as good, so you don’t need to go all the way to the end. If you have the energy to stay for sunset, make this your last stop in the park!

Valley View

Best National Parks in the USA

I’ve always wanted to check this place out. When you research this place, you are presented with some of the most beautiful pictures. Valley view has El Capitan on the left and Bridalveil fall on the right

Cook Meadows

Best National Parks in the USA

This is such a beautiful spot to conclude a day trip in Yosemite. Typically this boardwalk is packed with people, but the crowds thin out in the evening. This boardwalk is located right before the church, you can spot Yosemite Falls in the back.

3. Rainier National Park

Best National Parks in the USA

Quick Facts

Location: West-central Washington State
Closest Airport: Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
Size: 236,381 acres
Annual Visitors: 2 million
Best Time to visit: July-September
Length of Time to Explore: Highlights can be seen in 1-2 days

Living in Washington, this is one of the best National Parks in the USA that I’ve been able to explore time and time again. Something to note about Rainier is there aren’t the versatile viewpoints you get at a lot of the other national parks; however, you do get incredible views of Rainier just driving through the park. Even the views from the Sunset and Sunrise parking lots will blow you away, which are the two lots you park at for some of the more popular hikes.

I would argue this park is best for hiking, if hiking isn’t really your thing, this park would not be my priority. The snow sticks around until about July and arrives in October within this park, so there is a small window of time you can enjoy the park snow-free. You are able to access the Paradise side of the park throughout the winter, but I think this park is a lot more beautiful in the summer months so I recommend visiting in late July-September. The wildflowers here are definitely worth seeing and those usually bloom mid-July.

I think one thing that will surprise you about this park is the crowds, IT IS SO BUSY because most people come to do the same few trails! My favorite time to visit is weekdays or weekday nights for a sunset adventure because weekends feel like a zoo. Visiting on a clear day is so important because visibility here is essential. I’ve visited this park in the middle of summer and it’s been so foggy you can’t see any views of the mountain. Ensure you check the weather in the area to make sure it’ll be a sunny day so the mountain is out.

Hikes I Recommend

Skyline Trail

6 miles, moderate

Skyline Trail USA

If you only have time for one hike in the park it should be this one. It’s sort of the iconic Rainier park and for a good reason. On a clear day, you get stunning views of Rainier, a waterfall, meadows, and the surrounding mountain ranges: Mt Hood, St Helens, Adams, and Tatoosh Peaks. Because this is a loop trail, you get different views the entire trail. We spotted marmots and mountain goats on this trail, so if you’re lucky you’ll get some good animal spottings 🙂 I don’t say this often, but photos of this place don’t do it justice, you need to experience it for yourself.

Mount Fremont Lookout

5.7 miles, moderate

Mount Fremont Lookout

If you can squeeze in one sunset adventure at this park, this HAS to be the hike! This hike features a fire-lookout with close-up views of Mount Rainier. Cloud inversions are fairly popular at this hike so you have a good chance of experiencing one if the weather conditions cooperate. I will say the views of this hike aren’t as beautiful as Skyline due to the terrain–most of the trail you’re hiking on loose rock and gravel, so you’re not going to experience the lush meadows on this trail. If you’re able to do this for sunset, pack accordingly, even in mid-July it was FREEZING at the top.

Tolmie Peak Trail

6.4 miles, moderate

Best National Parks in the USA

Another must-do hike in Rainier and another one of my favorite hikes. This hike features a lake, rainier, and another fire lookout. This hike is known for very intense mosquitos so wear layers and lather in bug spray.

4. Grand Teton National Park

Best National Parks in the USA

Quick Facts

Location: The Teton Range, Wyoming
Closest Airport: Jackson Hole Airport
Size: 310,000 acres
Annual Visitors: 3 million
Best Time to visit: Summer & Fall
Length of Time to Explore: Highlights can be seen in 1-2 days

Grand Teton is absolutely incredible, yet it’s often overlooked because of the popularity of Yellowstone. It has such a calming energy and much of this park you can see without strenuous hiking. It’s also only about 20 minutes away from Jackson Town Square, a happening area of shops and restaurants. Sometimes National Parks feel a bit secluded so the proximity of this park to a popular town was something I really enjoyed.

Winter in the Grand Teton spans from November to March; however, I visited the first week of September and the park got it’s first snowfall of the season and it was a quite a bit of snow. Because of this, I recommend visiting in the summer months or early fall. The fall foliage here is definitely something worth checking out, but you may experience colder temperatures.

Hikes I Recommend

Delta Lake

9 miles, hard

Delta Lake USA

This hike features the most beautiful blue alpine lake with surrounding mountains. To our surprise, it snowed, so this was a lot more intense of a hike than we were originally planning. The boulder field that most hikers complain about towards the top was a lot sketchier in the snow so please only do this hike if weather permits. Photos of this place during the summer are absolutely incredible, I definitely want to do it again to fully enjoy the lake on a warm day.

Additional Hikes Worth Checking Out

  1. Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes Trail – 8.9 miles, hard
  2. Cascade Canyon Trail – 9.7 miles, moderate

Viewpoints I Recommend

Blacktail Ponds Overlook

Blacktail Ponds overlook

This spot is named after the “blacktail” deer, now formerly known as a mule, which often roams in this area. The mountain range was a bit smokey from nearby fires, which was a bit of a bummer but they were still so beautiful.

Schwabacher Landing

Best National Parks in the USA

This was my favorite viewpoint in Tetons, it overlooks Snake River. This is a great spot to go for a quick stroll, the farther you walk the more beautiful it got! It’s often argued that this is one of America’s most spectacular viewpoints. The second photo was taken 24 hours after the first when the first snowfall of the season hit pushing out all the smoke from the nearby wildfires.

Jenny Lake

jenny lake USA

This was another highlight of the park. The water is crystal clear and there are boat tours that will take you across the lake. There are not many views that I love more than a lake surrounded by mountains and this is exactly what you get at Jenny Lake!

5. Zion National Park

Best National Parks in the USA

Quick Facts

Location: Springdale, Utah
Closest Airport: McCarran International Airport.
Size: 146,597 acres
Annual Visitors: 4 million
Best Time to visit: Spring & Fall
Length of Time to Explore: Highlights can be seen in 2 days

Chances are you know of this park because of Angel’s Landing, one of the most dangerous hikes in the country. Fortunately, even if that hike isn’t for you this is still a beautiful park located in the cutest town. Dissimilarly from the other parks I’ve discussed, I’d argue that summer is probably the worst time to visit due to the heat. I recommend visiting in the Spring and Fall for more wild weather.

One of the downfalls of this park is you really have to plan ahead during Covid due to their shuttle system. Visitors need to secure a shuttle ticket from Recreation.gov to do nearly anything in Zion. Unlike most National Parks, you’re not able to drive your vehicle throughout the entire park (even during non-covid times). Once you arrive at the Visitor Center, about 30 minutes into the park entrance, you are unable to drive your vehicle any further without riding the park shuttle, unless you are staying at the Lodge.

Hikes I Recommend

Angels Landing

5 miles, hard

Best National Parks in the USA

This hike was AMAZING, and another one of those memorable climbs I will always remember because it was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. Please do your own research on this hike prior to committing. It is rated the most dangerous hike in the world, they’ve had a handful of deaths, so ensure you are prepared and are able to handle the intense heights and drop-offs.

It’s an uphill strenuous climb towards Scouts Landing, which is about 2 miles into the hike. A lot of people actually just hike up to Scouts Landing–the views are still incredible and it’s before the dangerous chains start. Once the chains start it’s a straight uphill climb on a narrow cliff until you reach the top. It honestly felt like the chains were never-ending. I’m not scared of heights so the chains section didn’t shake me up too much, but everyone was pretty terrified. It was fun conquering it with a bunch of strangers. I recommend doing it either first thing in the morning or prior to sunset because it gets SO CROWDED. Going down the chains when hundreds of people are trying to go up makes it a lot scarier.

The Narrows

milage depends on how far you go

Best National Parks in the USA

The Narrows is another iconic hike and the main reason many come to this park. This hike involves walking through a river within slot canyons. I highly recommend renting hiking boots, neoprene socks, and a stick to do this hike. The socks and boots kept my feet from going numb, the water is cold year-round. You can rent from Zion Guru or Zion Outfitters located just outside the park. You can also rent pants to keep your legs dry for quite, but I didn’t end up wanting to wear mine.

Hiking early has some disadvantages here. We started at 8 am and it was 50 degrees outside and the water temperature was 43. It was COLD! The crowds were very light though so that was really nice. This hike can stretch up to about 16 miles, but most people do not actually complete the entire thing. It’s about a mile until you even hit the water section of the hike. There are parts of this hike where the water is chest deep, so make sure you have your stuff in a waterproof bag.

Other Things Worth Checking Out

1. Canyon Overlook Trail –1 mile hike that provides you similar views as Angels Landing. A great hike to do for sunset!
2. Rent bikes and ride them down Zion Canyon –you’re actually able to ride bikes where the shuttle systems run so this is a great alternative to the shuttle system and gives you more flexibility of seeing the park.


That concludes that the 5 best National Parks in the USA need to be on your bucket list. For more national park itineraries, check out Journeying with Jess.

Which are the best National Parks in the USA that you want to visit?

Happy Exploring!
XOX,
Jess

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